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The Debate

Original Airdate 11-06-05



Presidential candidates Matt Santos and Arnold Vinick square off in a campaign debate. Forrest Sawyer is the moderator.
From NBC:
In a first for NBC's "The West Wing," the Emmy Award-winning series will broadcast a live episode featuring a debate between presidential candidates Congressman Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) and Senator Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda). Two live versions will be telecast, one for the East Coast and another for the West Coast.


Alan Alda as Arnold Vinick Republican Candidate for President
Jimmy Smits as
Matthew Vincente Santos Democratic Candidate for President
Forrest Sawyer as Himself Moderator

Information Links


Media Quotes

The West Wing is planning to do a live special during November sweeps that will revolve around a heated debate between presidential hopefuls Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) and Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda). "We are in negotiations with NBC to do a live debate," confirms the show's executive producer, John Wells. "We would actually film the hour leading up to the debate, the on-stage [action], all the backstage [stuff] and the aftermath."

"Will & Grace, West Wing Go Live!"
by Matt Webb Mitovich
August 10, 2005
TV Guide Online

There's talk that "The West Wing" also will beam live once this season.

NBC and Warner Bros. Television this week still refused to confirm it, but Jimmy Smits and Alan Alda, the actors who would star in it, have been openly enthusiastic about the concept.

Smits, who plays Democratic presidential candidate Matt Santos, last spring disclosed plans for a live show during November sweeps, done as a televised debate between his character and Alda's Republican Sen. Arnold Vinick. Alda says he's in favor of it.

"I love that sense of danger," Alda says.

"So the opportunity to do a presidential debate, although it's scripted, it'll be live, and there'll be a certain amount of uncertainty -- my blood is up for that."

A live debate with the leads planted at podiums and at least a portion of the script on TelePrompTers could actually be an easy production compared with a regular "West Wing" episode. The production team for "The West Wing" would be able to draw on the institutional memory of the highly rated 1997 "ER" live episode, which also was produced by John Wells for Warner Bros. Television. The "ER" episode was performed twice for East and West Coast time periods, so it is likely "The West Wing" would do the same.

Alda is mindful that live performing is not only thrilling, it can be dangerous.

"I've almost died on the stage several times," he says. "Maybe I should be more sensible."

"Return to yesteryear: Series dabble in live broadcasts"
by Valerie Kuklenski
September 29, 2005
Los Angeles Daily News

Alda says, "I love that sense of danger. The only training I had as an actor was as an improviser. It kind of fits with my aspiration to be as spontaneous as I can be.

"In fact, when I was a young man on the stage, if another actor missed an entrance and I was alone on stage, I thought, 'Oh boy, is this great? I can make up my own play now!'

"West Wing Goes Live"
September 29, 2005

NBC Thursday outlined plans for its Nov. 6 live broadcast of The West Wing. The episode will focus on a presidential debate between Democratic Congressman Matt Santos (played by Jimmy Smits) and Republican Sen.Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda).

... NBC will air two separate live versions, one each for the East and West coast. This also marks a return to live TV for executive producer John Wells, who produced a live episode of his other drama, ER, for its fourth season premiere in September 1997.

The live episode will be written by executive producer Lawrence O'Donnell and directed by executive producer Alex Graves.

"West Wing-ing It"
by Ben Grossman
October 10, 2005
Broadcasting & Cable

The live presidential debate on "The West Wing" between candidates Jimmy Smits and Alan Alda will have a real newsman as moderator.

Former ABC anchor Forrest Sawyer will play himself in the Nov. 6 episode, according to reports.

Producers were afraid to hire an actor for the role for fear he or she might get "too nervous" to do the part live.

October 10, 2005
New York Post

Executive Producer John Wells says that they'll have a "general sense of where they're going," are "definitely rehearsing a script" and are giving the two actors "substantial briefing materials" for the episode, noting that these days real presidential candidates are usually well rehearsed and almost never surprised by a question.

But there will be improvisation and spontaneity -- more than in the real thing, Wells said -- and they plan to solicit some questions over the Internet from viewers.

"To even call our current presidential debates 'debates' is stretching the term," he said, noting that virtually all elements, including the types of questions and the format, are "so pre-negotiated."

"In many ways what they've done is created a world for real presidential debates in which the candidates have an opportunity, to a larger audience, not to engage each other, but to give another version of their stump speech," Wells said.

"The whole idea about doing a [live 'West Wing'] debate was to try to do a debate in which the characters actually debated. . . . We will try to set up a world in which the candidates can have a real exchange," he said, adding that his goal is to get viewers to question why they don't get that in real life.

If yesterday's unscripted, spontaneous phone news conference is any indication, Alda will win the debate hands down -- though it's widely presumed that NBC has Smits in mind to play the next president of the United States if "West Wing" goes to another season


Alda is a very good public speaker. His early training, he notes, was in improv, whereas, Smits explained, "Jimmy is not a good talker," and his character is "much more verbal than Jimmy is or could ever be."


Consider their answers to a simple question: "Is it important to you guys . . . that your character wins the debate or . . . the election?"

"What's important to me," Smits replied, "is that we do good storytelling. I think we've been doing that and keep the audience on their toes, keep it topical. And, just to reinforce what Alan said before, is that both points of view are strong and I think since last season we've been doing that and will continue doing that."

Alda also began with the same evasive blah, blah, blah, but then recovered with a great save: "But specifically, to answer your question . . . I have to tell you that it's hard to play any character and not want that character to get what he wants. I wanted to destroy Howard Hughes when I was in 'The Aviator' and I saw every good reason to do it, so that I could be the guy convincingly.

"Of course I want to win the debate, some part of me does, anyway, but . . . you do have to go along with what the story is. If the story doesn't actually have Richard III winning the battle, no matter how much he wants to win, he doesn't win. But you still have to want it. In a debate like this, where . . . you're the one live on camera, if you don't win, it's like something's wrong with you. So it gets even more personal. Some part of me of course wants to win. Even in our imagination I would love to rule the world."

To which Smits added: "Alan wants to cream me out there."


Even Smits acknowledged he's no Alan Alda when one critic asked if he was worried about the live debate, given that "Alda is slick of tongue" and has been "talking for decades" -- which somehow sounded like it was meant to be an insult.

"Jimmy is not a good talker," Smits said, adding bravely that will force him to "prepare doubly hard."

"'West Wing' Candidates To Face Off in Live Debate"
by Lisa De Moraes
October 15, 2005
Washington Post

"We'll have a general sense of where we're going," but both Smits, who plays Democratic contender Matt Santos, and Alda, who plays Republican front-runner Arnold Vinick, are going to be briefed extensively enough on their characters' positions so they'll be able to react to each other naturally, Wells said.

"God, it sounds like... you're saying it'll be less scripted than a regular debate," Alda said, sounding mildly alarmed.

"We're just going to try to go out with a little bit of a net and riff a little bit, too," said Smits. "What's important to me is that we... keep the audience on their toes, keep it topical... and that both points of view are strong."

"This show has always tried to say what we wish our politics was," Wells said, and in the "West Wing's" debate, "we will try to set up a world where the candidates can have a real exchange."

"'West Wing' candidates to do live 'debate'"
by Ellen Gray
October 15, 2005
Philadelphia Daily News

"I'm just going to try not to smirk," said Smits, referring to President Bush's preferred facial expression in his first debate against challenger John Kerry. "I know from looking at debates that that gets people in trouble, so no smirking."

"I don't know what to do about not pointing," said Alda. "You're not supposed to point and that's my favorite gesture."

The episode will air live Nov. 6 at 8 p.m. (WNBC/Ch. 4) and will feature a debate between Democratic Rep. Matt Santos (Smits) and Republican Sen. Arnold Vinick (Alda). It will likely air with little or no commercial interruptions, making it about 10 minutes longer than usual, according to executive producer John Wells. Former ABC News correspondent Forrest Sawyer will moderate the debate (playing himself). Producers will also solicit questions from viewers via the Internet, said Wells


"Even to call our current presidential debates 'debates' is stretching the term," said Wells. "In many ways, what we've done is create a world in which for our real presidential debates now ... the candidates have an opportunity to not engage each other but give versions of their stump speech."


There is no set script for the episode, although there is a well-constructed outline. The actors, in preparing to go head-to-head, are boning up on each of their character's core issues.


"Of course I want to win the debate," said Alda. "It's hard to play any character and not want that character to get what he wants. I wanted to destroy Howard Hughes when I was in 'The Aviator,'" he said, referring to his part as Hughes' arch enemy, Sen. Ralph Owen Brewster.

"You do have to go along with what the story is. But you still have to want it, and in a debate like that, where you're out there and you're live on camera, if you don't win it's like something's wrong with you," he said. "So it gets even more personal. ... Even in our imagination, I would love to rule the world."

"Alan wants to cream me out there," Smits said with a laugh. And without a story line to adhere to, he indicated, he probably would.

"I am not a good talker," admitted Smits. "He just forces me to prepare doubly hard."

But for all of the lessons recent presidential debates have provided in what to avoid, there is one thing Alda can get behind.

"One of the most interesting moments in a recent presidential debate was the rectangular wrinkle in President Bush's jacket," he joked. "I thought that was fascinating. And if I can, I'm going to get that wrinkle."

"Debaters Alda and Smits will 'West Wing' it"
by Marisa Guthrie
October 17, 2005
New York Daily News

For more information about this episode:
Continuity Guide to "The West Wing"
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